Poor Weston Liggett. Saddled with a name that all but dooms him to a life of three martini lunches at the club, starched suits, and respectably arranged (though loveless) marriages with hapless dames, he’s afflicted with the additional burden of falling in love with a prostitute. And not just any prostitute, mind you, but the kind that’s Elizabeth Taylor in her prime, which also means that despite being ravaged by every aging boozehound in all of New York, she’ll maintain a porcelain visage without a hint of decay. She’s the kind of whore typical of the age, what with Holly Golightly traipsing about and all, and despite her reduction of life’s intimacies to the cash nexus, she’s spirited, debonair, and the life of every party. More to the point, she’s not your wife. And while her specific talents are never spelled out in bold, capital letters, it’s assumed she’s doing more than dutifully disrobing in the dark. Not only does she maintain an answering service (Butterfield 8, silly), she’s forced to turn away clients at peak hours, if only to steal away with your dignity, last seen in your ball and chain’s best fur coat.
But Weston didn’t have to end up this way. He’s obscenely wealthy and the envy of any man who once fantasized about middle-age employment that was, in the words of the wise, “all title and no work.” He’s living the dream, able to fork over $250 cash for a damaged garment at a time when single-family homes went for slightly less. Only when Gloria (Taylor) wakes up from the sort of evening that begins with a ripped dress, she’s having none of it. This first scene, wordless for a stretch that may or may not eclipse the opening silence of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is little more than the world’s most alluring female brushing her teeth, trying on clothes, and wandering about in a post-coital stupor, but it also establishes this broad’s peculiar sense of morality. She’ll inhale everything you’ve got, but when she wants to get serious, you’d better fall into line. Again, Gloria’s the living embodiment of the good tramp: a woman who lives for pleasure, but one who just might see beyond your genitals and plead for commitment. Because we all want to believe we’re so damned good in bed that we can shake a streetwalker loose of the life. Especially when they’re Elizabeth Taylor. But Weston is, apparently, that kind of man. Played by Laurence Harvey with all the charm of a man about to shoot up a massage parlor, he asks us to take a lot on faith, but it would seem that we’re more than willing.
It stands to reason that Gloria also has a platonic best friend in the form of Eddie Fisher, the man who left Debbie Reynolds in favor of greener, Liz-laden pastures. Reynolds always seemed to understand being dropped for such a woman, but if the shared, spark-free space in this movie is any indication, Liz simply exchanged Mike Todd’s lifeless corpse for Fisher’s. Old Deb should have been glad to be rid of such a bore, and once again we’re given a privileged perch of an era where every creepy lounge singer with pretensions of being the next Sinatra could have his day in the sun. Had she known poor Eddie would be crooning “Oh My Papa” well into the 21st century, even during the hip-shattering fall that eventually killed him, Taylor might have shrugged off her illness and boarded that doomed jet herself. If you ever want to know why she followed up with Richard Burton, the lion to Eddie’s lamb, watch their scenes together for a head-busting clue. Fisher’s Steve Carpenter, a down-on-his-luck musician who’s the eternal shoulder to lean on, is forced to juggle his friendship with a jealous girlfriend, but thankfully he never acts on his impulses to seduce his old chum. We simply wouldn’t believe it.
Gloria’s whoring is an open secret, especially with her doting mother, with whom she shares a dreary abode. Despite being gone for days at a time, stumbling home only to breathe booze in the old woman’s face, mama preserves the illusion that her daughter is an in-demand model and nothing more, even as Gloria rages, “Mama, face it: I was the slut of all time!” No such self-medicating lies are needed for Mrs. Thurber, the comic foil of the piece, who is always around the house to remind Gloria of her trashy destiny. They exchange some genuinely witty barbs, but we all know that Thurber’s cynicism masks a deep regret for not having pursued a similar path. After all, bitter blue hairs are always gunning down younger, more sexually active rivals, if only to convince them that barren, Mojave-like wombs are the preferred state of womanhood. Mama tried her best to raise a good girl, but once papa dropped dead, the die was cast. As if to lay a thick coat of psycho-babbling obviousness on the whole, whorish cake, Gloria eventually unfurls her painful past, one where she was repeatedly raped as a 13-year-old by a father substitute. But how painful can it be when, as she declares, the exploitation was just what the doctor ordered? Sure, Butterfield 8 is yet another Hollywood lecture where it is assumed that adolescent sex leads to prostitution, but my cap is tipped to the overall lack of regret on the part of the so-called victim. That said, I couldn’t help but gulp with nervousness as the film’s conclusion approached. If we have an unrepentant hooker about, this shit can’t end well. No bad deed goes unpunished in the golden age of movies.
Weston, of course, is married, but in a curious turn, the wife is far from the sort of harpy one would expect in a broken relationship. Instead, she’s perhaps the closest yet to a virginal saint, enduring as she does the unending rages of her revolting husband. She’s patient, understanding, and forgiving, when the only sensible reaction would be a blast of buckshot to Weston’s eternally sour mug. Hell, she’s even secure with the knowledge that Weston married her for money, as that ensures that she’ll never have to experience Weston’s self-loathing thrusts and manic-depressive orgasms. She’s the real peach of the piece, and the Eisenhower era’s last gasp at pedestal-placing femininity. In part revolutionary for suggesting that every man wearing a tie fucked around on his wife, the film couldn’t help but reveal its inner reactionary when it came to how women were supposed to respond to adultery and betrayal. It helps, perhaps, that the “other woman” is, well, cavernously loose, as no such person could ever really steal away the family’s breadwinner, except for a long weekend. That said, I was to some degree touched by Mrs. Liggett’s plight, as I knew she’d manage to produce flawless baked goods, even as her husband gave away her wardrobe to the one person who understood that anal wasn’t simply a Freudian affliction. Mamie was never really a match for Marilyn, but here’s to the forces that gave humorless endurance one last spin through the wash cycle.
Many of the era’s preoccupations are on display here: improbably tiny Italian sports cars, garish furs, engraved lighters, tacky nightclubs, and roadside motels with sassy proprietors named Happy. It was one helluva time; a stretch of years when it seemed like Americans had nothing more on their plates than wild parties, drunken, yet disease and pregnancy-free sex, and unending shopping sprees. Why, there isn’t a segregated Woolworth’s counter in sight, though had there been, its unpleasantness would have been quickly eclipsed by Elizabeth Taylor’s blinding cleavage. And as if we had any right to expect it, the film’s climax – a highway chase with cars that, thanks to the wizardry of the age, appear to be clocking in at just under the sound barrier – leaves us in stitches, as we damn well know that any vehicle driven by a whore seeking redemption will end up off a cliff, on fire, or in at least a dozen pieces. Thank Christ we’d get all three. After leaving his wife with the appallingly self-serving news that he half expects to be taken back after hunting down his lover one last time, Weston finds himself at Happy’s by-the-hour shithole, left in the dust by the Boston-bound Gloria. Only she won’t reach Beantown. Only the grave awaits, as well as the obligatory Oscar for being hospitalized in real life. Liz wasn’t above using a tracheotomy to secure an acting prize, though she later claimed to be embarrassed by the whole ordeal. Though not Maggie the Cat or the unreachable Martha, Gloria is worth remembering. Fondly, it so happens.